Cleveland Cavaliers: Tailoring An Offense For “The Old Guys”

The Cleveland Cavaliers have a second unit offense full of super-veteran players and specialists. In an offensive unit that seems to only run one way, perhaps change is in order.

Kyrie Irving and LeBron James running down the middle of the court to draw in defenders works. What doesn’t work is having a lot of versatile lineups and skillset going unused because there’s a system already set in place. While Tyronn Lue’s system is great at providing balance for the Big Three and almost automatically assigns roles to other players, the Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the most predictable teams in the NBA. Like it did in David Blatt’s tenure, this predictability makes an elite team easier to guard.

That’s especially true when players are shooting their shot more than moving the ball around to find the best one.

So what would make the second unit more predictable? Well, not roles per se. Role playing.

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If a fan was watching the Cleveland Cavaliers in James’ first stint in Cleveland, there was a team across the lake that the Cavs found it hard to get past on a couple of occasions, the Detroit Pistons. That was a team with Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace performing like a hand in a glove. It was seamless basketball that was almost transcendent as “Sheed” was one of the best stretch-fours of his time, along with players like Chris Bosh and Channing Frye (the connection to Frye is particularly important).

After Ben Wallace was traded, the Pistons played “Sheed” at center more while Amir Johnson and Antonio McDyess operated as the power forwards. Both Johnson and McDyess were capable of stretching the floor as well though they weren’t three-point threats.

While the team eventually traded the scorer-game manager, Billups, for a gunner in Allen Iverson, there’s more than enough film on how the Detroit Pistons ran their offense for the Cleveland Cavaliers to mimic their system for the second unit and make it both run smoothly and be less predictable.

Because “Sheed” was a player who wasn’t the most agile athlete but was one of the most accomplished shooters, it makes sense to use him as a reference base of how Frye should operate within an offense without a superstar by him to set him up.

Sheed was surrounded by a shooting guard in Hamilton who would run around screens all game to get a shot off, like Kyle Korver. He was surrounded by a do-it-all forward who, like Richard Jefferson, made heady plays and attacked the rim more than he shot a three-point attempt in Prince.

In Detroit, the trio of Billups, Hamilton and Prince were all responsible for ball movement. This was especially true for Billups, who was responsible for getting players to go to where they needed to be on offense and Hamilton, who would run off of quite a few curl screens but also be responsible for finding the bigs under the basket after those screens. The video below is the only video I found of Hamilton passing off screens and while the quality is good, it came from his days with the Chicago Bulls. Nonetheless, the same principles apply here:

For this to work for the Cleveland Cavaliers, this mean Korver has to do more than be a shooter when he’s coming off of screens and it also means that the Cavs will need a player who can score inside. That can be Frye, who started his basketball career as a traditional post player and has the moves to get off shots cleanly. It can be Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love or James, depending on if there are any players from the starting unit mixed-in with the bench unit.

Yet, if it is Frye and there aren’t any starting frontcourt players on the court, that means there needs to be another player on the floor that can stretch the defense but make plays inside as well. As of right now, the Cavs don’t have that player in the second unit.

Keep in mind that the Cavs are still looking for a backup point guard and are still awaiting J.R. Smith’s return from injury. Until then, the Cavs are using James or Irving as a backup point guard and DeAndre Liggins is the backup shooting guard. This effectively makes Jefferson the nominal power forward in the second unit.

Offensively, that’s fine as Jefferson can operate as a stretch four but in the event that Frye finds himself unable to convert inside, the second unit offense will become more predictable with only James, Irving, Point Guard X and Jefferson there facilitating the ball movement.

Defensively, it’s not fine though. That’s because neither Jefferson or Korver is a weakside shot-blocker. Those were the roles that McDyess and Johnson had on the Pistons. For that role, James is the team’s best bet.

Yet, because there will be a true backup point guard on the floor and, at times, another guard as well, it doesn’t make sense to pencil James in to solve this chink in their second unit defense.

Will Point Guard X be a solid weakside shot-blocker? It’s highly unlikely. Liggins doesn’t possess the burst, explosiveness or acceleration to be one despite his 6-foot-11 wingspan and shouldn’t be coming from his spot to perform that duty either. That’s where a mobile center who can stretch the floor will be of use. Not only will he be able to provide help to Frye defensively, he can hold up against any player himself and still be able to stretch the floor offensively.

Like Johnson or McDyess did for Sheed, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a center in Eric Moreland who can complement Frye’s skillset but he’s assigned to their NBA D-League team, the Canton Charge. Waiving 38-year-old Chris Andersen, who can’t help the team at all this year, for Moreland seems like it should be a no-brainer at this point. (Especially after seeing how important the rebounding battle has been for Cleveland in their last two meetings against the Golden State Warriors. Moreland broke the Canton Charge single-game rebound record for this month with 22 against the Greensboro Swarm.)

Until then, James should play a point-forward role for the second unit and try to score inside (after Korver curls), not merely be its backup point guard and confine himself to the perimeter. With the insane passing displays he puts on, it’s likely that those curls turn into “Punch. Snap. Hammer.” plays that see him wrap a laser beam around a defender’s back and hit an open shooter. (For the record, those are passes Moreland, a former point guard, should be able to make as well.)

The person receiving those passes, because of his transcendent shooting ability for a big man, should be Frye. Like Sheed, his shooting from the frontcourt completely opens up the floor for one-on-one battles inside. Put the smaller player on Frye and he can shoot over the top. Put the smaller player in the post and it’s an easier one-on-one battle. Put two big players on the court at the same time against an offense running up-and-down the court full-speed towards the rim and barely having to slow down to run curl screens for an all-time great shooter or pass out to a three-point shooter and blink. The opposing coach probably just has one true big on the court now.

Perhaps the most important piece of the second unit will be the backup point guard and although Irving, James, Shumpert and Liggins are capable of playing the position, they need a backup point guard so that their great players can rest and their Chicago-made 3-and-D specialists don’t overplay their hands as ball-handlers. Billups, who was one of the premier point guards in the league, was as able a catch-and-shoot player as a scorer and as able a floor general as he was a player who could post-up.

Finding a player who can do most of those things at the point guard position will bode well for the Cavs.

James (or Irving) may also end up playing point guard in the second unit but if that’s his role then the Cavs need another big man as soon as possible. If James is going to be the other big man, and cover for Frye, the Cavs need a backup point guard as soon as possible so that Irving doesn’t have to stay on the court so much.

Once that happens, the second unit (and the Cavs offense as a whole) will become less predictable.

Do you think that the Cleveland Cavaliers second unit will find success by using Kyle Korver as a facilitator like the Detroit Pistons used Rip Hamilton? Let us know in the comments section or Twitter @KJG_NBA.

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